Viewpoint

Response to Cincinnati Zoo mom shows our cruelty towards parents

Paul Thornton
Paul Thornton

Michelle Gregg, the mother of the 3-year-old whose fall into the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla enclosure necessitated the tragic shooting death of silverback Harambe, will not face trial for – well, what, exactly?

Officially, Gregg was cleared of child endangerment charges by Hamilton County, Ohio, prosecutor Joe Deters on Monday. But to anyone who has ever cared for a toddler in a public place – let alone several children, as Gregg was – Deters’ statement seemed less about bringing an investigation to a close than hushing a chorus of people demanding summary judgment of the mother with that reflexive, ubiquitous question: Where were the parents?

It’s a question several of our letter writers have asked, and at first it seems entirely appropriate – parents are, after all, responsible for their kids’ behavior in public. But it’s also a loaded question familiar to fathers and mothers, and it assumes a kind of preternatural ability on our part to control the cohabiting cavemen that surround us (commonly known to you as children).

Gregg’s indiscretion strikes me, the father of 4-year-old twins, as pedestrian. She reportedly looked away from her 3-year-old for a few seconds after telling him to stay out of the gorilla exhibit. So he went into the exhibit, an irresistible act of defiance to anyone possessing the not-fully-developed prefrontal cortex of a toddler. Kids get lost in zoos and other public places all the time without the parents facing an investigation for negligence; this kid just happened to get lost in a gorilla enclosure.

Here’s the thing: Thanks to the proliferation of smartphone cameras, Gregg is now being vilified for endangerment, but how many parents today face criticism for precisely the opposite “mistake”? As a father I’ve received my share of judgmental stares for perceived acts of negligence as well as for hovering over my kids too closely – it depends on who’s doing the staring.

Collectively, we can’t seem to make up our minds about parents. What villain are we – the nosy helicopter mom or dad who never lets his kid climb a tree or experience any other physical danger, who calls the cops when he sees a child walking home from the park alone? Or do we let our kids waste away in front of iPads and minivan TVs, too lazy to perform even the most basic tasks of parenting, to the point that 3-year-olds get dropped in gorilla enclosures?

No one suffered more than poor Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo on May 28; running a close second was Michelle Gregg, who watched in horror as a quarter-ton silverback poked and effortlessly dragged her child out of sight. That many of us respond by asking “Where was the mother?” instead of simply acknowledging Gregg’s trauma and lamenting Harambe’s death shows how cruel we can be to parents today.

Email: paul.thornton@latimes.com.

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